Tuna Food Research Leads to New Soybean Markets for Illinois Farmers

By Eric Englert
Medill News Service

BLOOMINGTON, IL, June 29 – The Illinois Soybean Association, through a research grant from its association dues, is supporting Mexican tuna ranchers in pursuit of the perfect soy-based tuna meal and possibly inaugurating a new, long-term export base for Illinois soybean farmers—a potential demand market of 165 million bushels, said Mark Albertson, the agency’s director of strategic marketing development.

The aquacultural use of soy food leads that of beef production worldwide and is still in the development stage, but by the end of summer 2017, products may be ready for the next step in production, Albertson said.

The soy-based sausages are floating food, allowing tuna ranchers to more adequately gauge how much food is being consumed and save what isn’t eaten.

Tuna ranchers involved with the project say that using soy-based food is better for fish and more sustainable over the long term than using baitfish that often carry disease, are expensive and in unpredictable supply.

Carbohydrates are absent in the tuna feed, and the proteins in the food mimic the amino acid building blocks that naturally occur in fish, making it more digestible and palatable, Albertson said.

The Illinois Soybean association is working with major corporate sponsors like Archer Daniels Midland Co. to fund the research and university partners like Kansas State and Texas A&M to help taste-test and research the composition of the food ingredients, Albertson said.

Alejandro Buentello and his company Icthus Unlimited, based in West Des Moines, Iowa, oversee the primary research and development for the project. Buentello is optimistic about the potential that this partnership has not only for the aquaculture industry itself, but also for the long-term sustainability of the food source in North America.

The tuna aquaculture industry’s current practices are inefficient and costly, and not sustainable in the long term, as the feed conversion ratio, or the amount of food it takes to produce one pound of flesh on the tuna, is astronomically high, Buentello said.

“Currently, 98 percent of tuna aquaculture operates under the model where tuna are captured from the wild that are 100 metric tons and 150 feet in diameter,” Buentello said. “Then they are fed sardines which may or may not spread disease. While the current aquacultural model is very profitable—multiplying the price by 50 for what the canned price would be—the problem is that this is not sustainable.”

Feed Conversion Ratios for Yellowfin tuna are about 28 to one, which means that it takes 28 pounds of baitfish to put on one pound of tuna flesh. The soy-based diet results in an FCR of about 4 pounds to one. This is more efficient and is better for the environment over time, Buentello said.

“Mark [Albertson] wanted to know if we could add something sustainable,” Buentello said. “So we put together a project working with several prototypes and listened to what the fish had to say.”

The fish have spoken: they like what they see, Buentello said. The only question is how long it will take to get the regulatory approval, he said.

The project has a couple of goals for the next year and a half. First, the majority of tuna ranchers on the Baja peninsula, the epicenter of North American tuna aquaculture, need to be persuaded that they should switch to the soy-based diet, which will save them over $1,000 per fish, Buentello said. And second, California and the federal regulatory apparatus need to ok the practice off the coast of San Diego, he said.

California’s Rose Canyon fishery project is the test case for offshore marine aquaculture in the U.S. The project is a joint effort between the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and a private investment group, said Russ Vetter of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Proponents would like to set up a sustainable offshore aquaculture finfarm that would produce 5000 metric tons of yellowtail jack, white bass, and sea bass annually, he said.

Rose Canyon has been delayed for eight years by environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, Vetter said. The project started to see some traction within the last few months and Hubbs-Seaworld is in the process of filing the necessary National Environmental Policy Act paperwork to ensure that the site and its activities will not endanger existing marine life or cause any damage to the environment, Vetter said.

If the project goes through and gets approved, fish can be raised offshore in San Diego, fed a soy-based diet and then shipped off to Mexico to be raised into adulthood off the Baja peninsula, Buentello said. That’s good news for Illinois farmers, tuna ranchers, and the U.S. fish-consuming population at large, he said.

“The diet has been well-consumed and once we have the ability to provide a closed-cycle—raising the fish from fingerlings onward—this will provide the most complete source of data and direction for the future,” Buentello said.

For Americans, the conditions of the oceans and an overreliance on imports–90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported–for fish proteins are two really important issues as doctors continue to advise people to consume more fish in their diets, Buentello said.

“This is a very important issue for sustainability because we can feed the world with cheap proteins,” said Syd Kraul, owner and fish hatchery manager at Pacific Planktonics, in Kailua Kona, Hawaii. “There are really not that many forage fish out there relatively speaking.”

Carmi, Illinois soybean farmer Tim Scates said the growth potential for soy-based aquaculture is huge.

“We’re trying to utilize 600 million bushels by 2020,” Scates said. “We are just in the beginning stages now, having the technology. As much tuna as the world consumes, if we can hit on the right formula, quite a bit of soybeans will be going toward that.”

In terms of the next steps, Albertson said they will start to feed tuna in a 2000-net pen, side by side with fish in pens of a similar size that have been fed only sardines to see how they compare. As of now, the test size of the pens is about 60-70 fish.

“It will soon be obvious to the ranchers that our feed is the best choice,” Albertson said. “We have worked with the Spanish Oceanography Institute in particular. They invited six or seven different groups to test feeds. Our feed had the best survivability of all the competitors. Our feed uses very little fish meal and fish oil. The amount is decreased by at least 10 fold.”

The global market for healthy fish options is also growing. In particular, Albertson cited the Japanese sushi market. Japanese connoisseurs are looking for tuna with a particularly red flesh color, he said. When tuna are fed only sardines, the coloration is a pale pink and that turns off those buyers. The tuna raised with soy tends to have just such a red coloration.

Perhaps most importantly for Albertson, Buentello, and all involved is the public buy-in. Movements are afoot for environmental certification of aquacultured fish and there is a “willingness to pay a premium for seafood that is genetically certified,” Vetter said.

“People need to look at food security a little more broadly and realize that aquaculture does not use any fresh water and any land, and can produce an environmentally healthy, sustainable food use,” Vetter said.